MacKenzie on Raps: DeRozan’s ace in the hole

Raptors guard DeMar DeRozan dunks on Pacers centre Ian Mahinmi. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young)

DeMar DeRozan knows how this game works.

He knows the doubts of his detractors. He knows he must keep improving and working if he wants to be playing past April. In his fourth season with the Toronto Raptors, he also knows the feeling of losing all too well.

While DeRozan is open and accommodating when it comes to the basketball part of his life, you need to listen hard and pick your questions carefully because he isn’t the guy who brags or boasts to make himself or his game sound better.

Instead of namedropping or flexing on social media outlets about his lifestyle, he’s more likely to discuss how he’s given up soda this season or mention how many evenings he’s spent staying in — including New Year’s Eve — studying up on his opponents on Synergy.

While he isn’t one to talk about himself, he’s got someone else willing to do it for him.

Gary Payton wants you to know how much DeRozan cares about the game and how hard he works to respect it.

“That’s my man,” DeRozan said, when asked about Payton. “I love that dude, man.”

In typical DeRozan fashion, the news that Payton has been working with him during the offseason and mentoring him since he was in high school was revealed nonchalantly. First mentioned in a feature written by Sportsnet Magazine’s Dave Zarum, DeRozan kept his Hall of Fame finalist mentor under wraps for the first three seasons of his career.

“DeMar’s a great kid,” Payton said during a phone interview. “I’ve seen DeMar ever since he was playing in high school and he was coming to a lot of the Vegas things and I heard about a kid out of L.A. that was really, really good.”

When DeRozan made the decision to enter the NBA after one season at USC, it was Payton’s agent, Aaron Goodwin, that he signed with. That’s not the only connection between the two, though. Raptors assistant Eric Hughes, the coach who worked with DeRozan nearly every night during his rookie season, is one of Payton’s oldest and closest friends from Oakland.

“Eric Hughes was my trainer,” Payton said. “He trained me my whole career.”

To bond the two even tighter, Raptors head coach Dwane Casey coached Payton in Seattle for nine seasons. Last summer, the four found themselves together at Hughes’ wedding, discussing what was next for DeRozan.

“Coach Casey was like, ‘You’ve gotta stay on him, Gary. He can become good. He can become like you,'” Payton said. “And I said, ‘Imma stay on him.'”

Since inking a four-year, $38-million contract with the Raptors in October, Casey has indeed given DeRozan the opportunity. While the team’s record doesn’t necessarily reflect it, he has taken advantage.

“What people don’t understand is, DeMar is nothing but a basketball junkie,” Payton said. “He can’t do anything else. He can’t sleep, he doesn’t sleep, he doesn’t do anything else and when he doesn’t sleep he wants to go work out. He works out two or three times a day. He has a great fiancee who is on him like a clock. They met at USC.”

DeRozan’s fiancee can be spotted at every Raptors home game, counting down the shot clock and calling out screens as though she was sitting on the bench. A former player herself, she shares DeRozan’s love for the game and, along with his cousin who is also here with him in Toronto, helps keep him focused on the goal at hand. She also keeps it real with him.

“He went out one day and practiced and his girl was over there and she was like…’You need to go and sit down because you’re not really here right now,'” Payton described. “She does that and I love that about her because she tells him that. He goes and looks and you know what he does? He says, ‘Okay, let’s do another hour.’ That’s just how it goes.”

Payton, who is as concerned for DeRozan’s off-court success as he is with how he’s doing on the floor, knows he doesn’t have to worry about who his protege is spending time with.

“Nowadays a lot of guys have dudes who are going to be with them just for their career,” he explained. “(DeRozan) has the group that’s going to be with him for his life. After basketball is over… he knows they weren’t just there for the ride of the NBA. He knows that.”

No longer the 19-year-old that was drafted to the Raptors, DeRozan recently discussed how his eating habits have changed as he becomes more aware of taking care of his body, doing whatever he can to try to gain an edge. First to go was soda, then he cut down on sugars and processed foods. While he admits to much less clean eating during the offseason, he said he’s realized how important it is to properly fuel his body during the season.

When the season started and DeRozan started showing off a post game that he hadn’t had before, Payton was sitting on his couch at home, tuning in to Raptors games and smiling.

“We watched a lot of tape me and him, how I used to do that and he learned how easy it can be,” Payton said. “When you’re guarding a little guy that’s only weighing about 170 pounds and you’re weighing almost 200 it’s really easy to do it.”

From the post game to a court vision and awareness that wasn’t there before, Payton isn’t surprised at the development because he has seen DeRozan works and also how he studies his craft.

It was the yearning to know about everyone who had come before him that made Payton’s ears perk up when a high school aged DeRozan started picking his brain.

“He asks a lot of questions about a ton of stuff,” Payton said. “He always sits there and listens as everything is being said. I talk about a lot of stuff and he’ll always be like, ‘Yeah, I heard about that. Is it true about this? Gary, did you do this?’ He knows a lot about the game which people don’t understand. He knows what to do and how to do it. When you tell DeMar something he doesn’t just put it in one ear and out the other. He takes that in and gets that knowledge and adds it to his game.”

DeRozan beams when he talks about Payton and the conversations the two share.

“I swear, I ask him the craziest stories about whatever,” DeRozan said. “About anything. How he used to talk to Jordan, who was the biggest trash talker, everything. I could sit there for hours and listen to him talk about his playing days…It’s crazy. Hearing the stories from in the locker room, teammates, situations when they we’re in the playoffs, to this and that, it could be anything. It could be anything. One thing he’ll do, he’s got an iPad with all of the games on it. That’s all he plays, that iPad. Ill talk to him about it. He doesn’t stop talking.”

More importantly than the stories about Payton’s playing days, though, is that DeRozan has a someone who has been in his shoes that he can trust completely. In a league that moves fast, and expects so much, this is an invaluable find.

“I look up to him,” DeRozan said. “That’s one person that if I ever need advice, somebody to talk to, whatever, he’s there. He’ll send me texts with things he sees. I credit him with a lot of stuff…just being somebody like that that I can go to.”

While DeRozan has been on Payton’s radar since he was a high schooler looking like a man among boys, Payton has been a part of DeRozan’s basketball journey even longer.
“I was a kid watching him…forever,” DeRozan said. “My first pair of Nikes was a pair of GP’s. It’s crazy just to be close to someone like that.”

When DeRozan isn’t hounding Payton with questions about his days in Seattle, the two watch game tape. Whether they’re in L.A., Las Vegas or on a plane flying to China for a charity event, the two will watch tape of DeRozan in Toronto, tape of opponents Payton would like him to emulate and tape of some of the game’s greatest along the way.
“He likes to watch old school basketball,” Payton said. “He likes to do that anyway. He goes and watches people like Dr. J, Magic, Jordan. He likes doing that because he likes to study the game. He’s very intelligent about the game. That’s what I seen in him since day one.”

In a season that hasn’t gone how DeRozan had hoped — the team holds a 23-38 record with 21 games remaining, despite new point guard Kyle Lowry added to the mix and a mid-season trade involving DeRozan’s best friend Ed Davis and veteran point guard Jose Calderon in exchange for Rudy Gay — more than his game has evolved.

Watch him carefully. Gone is the shy youngster who spent his first three seasons cutting his teeth with a role that was probably larger than what he was ready for. In his place is a focused, young man who has grown impatient with losing while also becoming aware of his own ability to make things happen.

The kick-out passes to teammates for an open look from three, work in the post against smaller defenders and the continuous drives to the hoop regardless of whether the referees have rewarded him with free throws or not all show the work he has put into his game over the offseason.

Where he would get frustrated, defeated when calls would go against him, he now gets fired up and is beginning to use that anger as fuel, driving even harder to the hoop on the next possession. Where there was uncertainty and doubt, DeRozan is starting to find understanding. He has spoken this season about the game slowing down for him and of knowing where his teammates will be, the passes he has the option of making and what the best decision will be.

Payton believes the 23-year-old can elevate his game to an elite level in time.

“He can be an All-Star in the next two, three years,” Payton said. “I think he’s got to work real hard at it, (but) he can do it. That’s the way I’m saying you play on both ends of the floor… I want people to understand that he’s a young kid who works hard. Everybody needs to understand that. This kid is not a kid who is at his peak yet…they’re going to be surprised in the next couple of years.”

Whether DeRozan is working on his game during the summer or surprising opponents during the season, Payton will continue to be there for him whenever the texts or calls come. In the meantime, he will be working with other young players, continuing to be all about the assist as he grooms them for NBA life.

“All I’m doing is telling them to play the game the way you know you can play the game and as hard as you can and don’t look back on anything else. Don’t ever have the doubt in your mind that ‘I could have did this a different way.’ That’s why I’m here, to make sure you don’t do it that way. I’m here to make sure you’re going to do it the right way and you won’t have any regrets.”

Regardless of how the year ends in Toronto, when DeRozan walks off of the court for the final time this season, he’ll know he only has reason to look forward. Forward to another summer of training where Payton will be ready with another steady round of stories.

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